Dan Brown's 'Inferno': a burning sensation

The writing in Brown's latest is one hot mess, but the tale of global intrigue manages to ensnare anyway.

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In Dante's "Inferno," the first book in "The Divine Comedy," the gates of hell are inscribed with the now-famous phrase "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Readers of Dan Brown's "Inferno," the fourth book in his Robert Langdon series, should heed a similar warning: Abandon hope of even passable writing.

While his earlier blockbusters in the series ("Angels and Demons," "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Lost Symbol") were not noted for the elegance of their prose, the writing at least did not detract from the intrigues of the story. But here, the prose is so egregious that even this hired reviewer was tempted to bail out. The leaden dialogue and the italicized recaps of the plot that open every chapter had me screaming at the author to quit treating me like an idiot.


By Dan Brown
Doubleday ($29.95).

Nevertheless, I soldiered on and, by about halfway through, was turning the pages just to find out what happens. Millions of other readers will be doing the same.

"Inferno" travels through the secret hideaways of museums, cathedrals and monuments in Florence, Venice and Istanbul, with the usual dazzling array of art. (I spent an inordinate amount of time online looking up the artworks.) But "Inferno" also includes an adventure ride through a literary text -- Dante's description of hell.

As in the previous books, Harvard professor Langdon, a symbologist, is in the middle of a crisis that only his knowledge can resolve. A mysterious woman emerges with skills of her own, and everything happens within 24 hours, with bodies piling up because the villain's worldview requires some sacrifices.

But there are a few twists -- the novel opens with Langdon's temporary amnesia (Dante's "lost in a dark wood"?), and we untangle the plot through flashbacks for each character. This latter device results in never having quite enough information to second-guess the solution, leaving me unprepared for the ending.

Dan Brown incorporates "science" and "codes" into his novels, but in this case, you don't have to struggle through computer programming ("Digital Fortress"), anti-matter ("Angels and Demons") or noetic science ("The Lost Symbol"). Despite the pre-release hype (and book cover), the numbers game does not really involve any secret codes directly related to Dante. Instead, the mathematical theories are backdrop for a plot that involves a scientific threat that everyone can understand.

If Mr. Brown intended to use the plot as a wakeup call in light of today's global disasters, it certainly worked. I imagine that there will be some debate over his mathematical projections (and the interpretations of this data), but at the same time, controversy may arise when some readers are tempted to agree with the villain.

Dante's masterpiece inspired art, sculpture, literature and drama in every subsequent century, from Albrecht Durer to Salvador Dali, from William Blake to James Joyce. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translated Dante for the American public in 1867, and today video games highlight the "Inferno" portion.

Mr. Brown avoided the "layers of hell" game, where every generation has offered its own take on society's sins and appropriate punishment. During a recent interview on NPR, Mr. Brown indicated that he wanted to extend his coverage of fine art in his novels to "the literary arts." But he never really includes literary analysis on the allegory of the inferno. Apart from a few references to hidden meanings in Dante, don't hope for an exploration of allegory or literary criticism of Dante's Inferno.

By the third or fourth chapter, it is clear that Mr. Brown is "doing Brown" in a pastiche of his style. Many of his earlier novels had a Clive Cussler feel to them, especially in some of his high-tech, miraculous escapes. But his historical context could usually compensate for the silliness. Langdon does not have to survive jumping out of a helicopter with no parachute this time, but the constant lucky escapes become wearisome. They inspire suspicion that Mr. Brown includes them as a satire of what the reading public will tolerate.

But again, nevertheless ... "Inferno" can still qualify as vacation reading, redeemed by the sweeping spectacle of the story. The ending is both startling and far more frightening than his other plots -- and he does a good job of connecting the medieval world to the modern, where science fiction apocalyptic nightmares are becoming a living reality.

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Rebecca Denova is a lecturer in the history of early Christianity at the University of Pittsburgh (rid4@pitt.edu).


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